In a Manner of Speaking . . .

Mr. Manners was musing about the “between he and I” vs. the “between him and me” conundrum.

Of course, for Mr. Manners, it was no conundrum at all since he is a self-proclaimed expert in all things grammatical. It will take a sharp-eyed reader to detect a dangling participle or even a split infinitive in this column.

Truth be told, Mr. Manners is somewhat of a prude, if not a priss, when it comes to proper usage – either written or spoken – of the English language. Latin conjugations, planted deep in his brain by pedagogical professors, are still within his grasp.

Mr. Manners, when he’s not proselytizing about the nuances of etiquette – the proper deployment of teaspoons and soupspoons – can often be heard expounding on the virtues of using the language properly.

The truth – and we mean the hard truth – is that there is no single sign or signal that advertises “ignorance” or “lack of breeding” than the misuse of language, including the slight misapplication of words i.e., “Electorial College” or, worse, “Electrical College,” rather than the correct usage of “Electoral College.”

For those who care, or are even aware, of such stumbles, you might be interested in knowing there are two words, practically synonyms, that describe such linguistic malpractice: “Dogberryism,” derived from a character named Dogberry (of course) which Shakespeare created in his play “Much Ado About Nothing.” Similarly, a “malapropism” comes from a character named “Mrs. Malaprop,” created by playwright Richard Sheridan, who also, to great humorous effect, could not get her words precisely correct.

The “sounds right” trap (“between he and I”) is especially precarious because it often sounds erudite but, in fact, advertises ignorance – instantly to those who know.

The improper use of words, the mispronunciation of words, putting the emphasis on the “wrong syllable” (which is especially widespread in the Cayman Islands) or, even worse, the mangling of grammar and syntax sends a message – the wrong message – to the educated and professional classes.

Many are no doubt familiar with George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” – (later rebranded “My Fair Lady” for the Broadway musical). In the first act of the play, two linguists, Colonel Pickering and Henry Higgins encounter Eliza Doolittle, a street urchin, a flower girl “condemned by every word she speaks.”

Higgins boasts that within six months, he can teach Eliza to speak like a duchess and pass her off as a member of high society. Pickering disagrees – the girl, he believes, is linguistically handicapped for life – and thus they make a bet.

The good news, for Eliza, for theatergoers, and for us, of course, is that Higgins wins the wager. Through the use of language, Eliza becomes a lady who would be quite at home at Ariane Dart’s annual garden party.

Most children learn to speak through mimicry, like parrots. Those fortunate to be raised in an “educated household,” surrounded by books and within earshot of parents who speak the language well, have a huge head start on those without similar advantages. (Unless you want your children speaking like your maids or their nannies, you’d better listen to what Mr. Manners is telling you . . .)

In Cayman’s earlier days, many students were not properly schooled in the complexities and nuances of the English language – there was little practical need to be. As long as they could “understand each other,” that was good enough. But it no longer is.

Today, many young Caymanians aspire to study at universities to prepare themselves for careers in Cayman’s professions – international law, accounting, hotel and resort management, and many others. In all of those fields, speaking properly is a requisite, not an option.

The question arises, is it “too late” for those already well advanced in their lives or their careers to learn to speak proper, even impeccable, English?

Mr. Manners, like Shaw’s linguist Henry Higgins, can assure you it is not. A simple Google search using the keywords “best English grammar books” will have you well on your way.